If you can't have a magazine e-reader that mimics print, you might as well have a print edition that mimics digital. Or tries to, anyhow. This seems to be the driving notion behind the December issue of Esquire, in which about half a dozen pages are enhanced with augmented reality features; hold them up to a Webcam, and the images on the screen come to life.
Hold the cover up to a Webcam, and cover subject Robert Downey Jr. steps off the page in 3-D, offering a primer on Esquire's augmented reality issue while the cover copy flies off the cover behind him. Tilt the magazine and the on-screen animation moves in sync. The effect is triggered by a box, displayed prominently (and a bit jarringly) between Downey's legs on the cover that allows the computer to interact and communicate with the printed page. The effect, needless to say, is pretty cool if not a bit over-the-top.
Inside, a fashion spread on layering springs to life, with a male model bundled up in the midst of a driving snow. Tilt the magazine and both the weather and the model change: the sun comes out, the weather turns temperate and the model strips down into more sunshine-appropriate garb. Even the staple "Funny Joke from a Beautiful Woman" page is augmented; bring the magazine back to your Webcam after midnight, and actress Gillian Jacobs will tell a more risqué joke, too blue for daytime audiences.
The digital fireworks in the December issue don't forget an audience that Esquire, and the entire print magazine business, are desperate to reach: advertisers. At least two of the AR pages trigger on-screen ads for Lexus, who absorbed some of the costs of the rather expensive development of the issue. Both the recession and an exodus to online advertising have put many magazines in a bind. Rival publisher Condé Nast recently had to shutter Gourmet  and a handful of other publications for lack of advertising support, and while Esquire has done a good job of retaining readership, retaining advertisers is another story as its number of pages sold has dipped 26 percent this year over last.
Will the digital push help? December's AR issue, on newsstands Nov. 16, isn't Esquire's first shot at differentiating itself via emerging technologies. The October 2008 issue launched with a limited number of covers sporting an e-ink display with flashing headlines. The gimmick was, well, gimmicky, but it's unclear if it did anything to boost Esquire's brand in the long run. In fact, some readers raised environmental concerns about recycling the issue since it had electronics embedded in the cover. Hearst, Esquire's publisher, has been trying to make the crossover into new kinds of media as well, attempting to get its own e-reader to market specifically for magazines and newspapers.
Of course, the beauty of digital delivery to an e-reader is that it is astronomically cheaper than printing on paper and shipping hard copies. Esquire's latest digital foray, while visually neat, was a six-figure endeavor. We're not mathematicians over here, but it seems to us that while Hearst and Esquire hit the wow-factor, they may have missed the point.